Twenty-five elementary school students from the Hill District take turns four or five at a time running around a court in sneakers, chasing a bouncing ball one sunny spring afternoon. It’s a popular after-school activity for these kids, who dream of someday playing this sport at the high school and college level. Some may falter, but those who show enough effort will have a legitimate opportunity to make those hopes become reality.
The sport they are playing is a highly athletic, fast-paced game—squash.
For these 25 students, the indoor racket game has been part of their life for three days a week since December. But this is no mere sports club—it’s Steel City Squash, the recently formed Pittsburgh chapter of a national program. The No. 1 focus here is on academics, with a promise of time on the court as an incentive to attend a rigorous tutoring program from fourth grade through the end of high school and on to college.
“We ask a lot of our students, and we have very high standards, ” said Brad Young, executive director of Steel City Squash. “We are not a program that is for everyone, and we have come to terms with that. We would love to solve the problems of inner-city public schools, but we feel that that’s beyond our scope.”
Steel City Squash is one of about 20 programs in the National Urban Squash and Education Association, which grew out of the first urban squash effort, launched in Boston in 1996.
“Part of the magic of the program is that squash is perceived as an elite sport and traditionally has been played in Ivy League college and prep schools and places like that, ” said Steel City Squash board member David Hillman. “I wouldn’t say it was an effort to combat the elitist image. It was really more an idea that the sport involves a lot of discipline and determination and good qualities that any kid can benefit from.”
But before students can benefit, they have to actually give it a shot.
“When I heard about it I didn’t know what it was, ” said Machali Frazier, a fifth-grader at Miller African-Centered Academy in the Hill District. “So I told my mom and she said I should try it.”
That’s how it often starts for students—and for 97 percent them in the program nationwide, it ends with a high school diploma. That’s compared to just 50 percent of their peers, Mr. Young said. These students are beginning in fourth and fifth grade and were selected from Miller and St. Benedict the Moor School.
Steel City Squash, which gets support from local foundations and private donors, has partnered with the University of Pittsburgh. The group studies at Trees Hall and practices on courts at Pitt’s Fitzgerald Field House—as long as the students finish their homework. The sessions take place twice during the school week and also on Saturdays, with community service projects on weekends. Over the summer, the students follow a five-day-a-week intensive academic and squash training program.
On May 30, Steel City Squash is hosting the first annual Steel City Cup, a competition-based fundraiser at the Rivers Club, Downtown, from noon to 6 p.m., with a goal of raising $30, 000. Five teams of students taken from the ranks of Steel City Squash will compete against each other as college students assist them. Teams will compete for the cup championship and to raise the most money. Anyone who supports a team is invited to attend.
These students will fit in seamlessly with the older students, Mr. Young said, because their lived experience, growing up in a low-income community, often makes them adaptable; it gives them a knowledge many don’t realize they have.
Before Mr. Young came to Pittsburgh, he worked with StreetSquash, an urban squash program in New York City. One day, the group held a corporate volunteer day, where executives were supposed to help the students train. At one point, the execs were supposed to serve balls for the students to swat. That quickly changed when one particularly talented student switched roles and showed the grown-up how to do it better.
“It was that confidence just to say, ‘No, here’s how you’re supposed to do it and I’ll teach you and even though I’m in seventh grade, I know what I’m doing and you don’t, ’ ” Mr. Young said. “And he didn’t think anything of it.”
But as Mr. Young knows, it’s not always easy for the students to see that in themselves.
He recalled one student he worked with in a New York as a ball of energy who couldn’t focus himself and was constantly getting into trouble. About halfway through high school, the student grew into his body and found some success on the squash court. He decided he wanted to play in college.
One problem: He didn’t have the grades to get into a school with a squash team.
So his squash coaches, including Mr. Young, came up with a plan. The boy would go to community college for two years and continue in the program. They promised the boy that if he worked with them, they would get them where he wanted to go.
“And this past year, he went to the Hobart and William Smith in New York, which was his dream school, ” Mr. Young said. “He played on the team there and did very well academically as well.”
Even though the students in Steel City Squash are far off from graduating high school, they have aspirations that squash will help them get there.
Miller fifth-grader Ja’Den Coffey and St. Benedict fifth-grader Crystalina Edmonds agree that they are already focused on going to college — and continuing with squash.
“I want to stick with it, ” Ja’Den said. “I want to play in college.”